Alex Karras, the late Detroit Lions legend turned primetime American TV star, will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year after a long wait.
The former Lions defensive tackle received a posthumous selection last week along with 14 other NFL greats including Jimmy Johnson, Bill Cowher and George Young.
Karras played for Detroit from 1958 to 1970 and died in 2012 after suffering from health problems including dementia, heart disease and cancer.
“We would like to congratulate the entire Karras family on the selection of Alex into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Lions owner Martha Ford said in a statement released by the team.
“While we were thrilled to induct Alex into our most recent Pride of the Lions Class in 2018, today’s announcement solidifies his place as not only one of the all-time great Lions players, but also one of the best to ever play in the NFL.”
The Order of AHEPA, the oldest organization for Greeks in North America, celebrated Karras’ selection via an announcement on Facebook.
Born Alexander George Karras and raised in Gary, Indiana, Karras was the son of Dr. George Karras, an immigrant from the Greek island of Chios who graduated from the University of Chicago and got his medical degree in Canada.
Karras was a member of the NFL’s 1960s all-decade team and played alongside Hall of Famers Joe Schmidt, Lem Barney and Yale Lary in Detroit.
He played in four Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team All-Pro player. Karras missed the 1963 season after being suspended for gambling, and some speculate that this kept him from the Hall of Fame while he was alive.
After his playing career, Karras spent time as a professional wrestler and later became a popular actor.
He played a minor but memorable role in director Mel Brooks’ 1974 smash hit comedy film “Blazing Saddles,” which featured prominent actors such as legend Gene Wilder. Karras played the very strong and slow-witted thug Mongo, who rode into town on a huge brahman marked with “yes” and “no” passing signals, knocked out a horse with one punch and famously responded to a question from Sheriff Bart with, “Don’t know…” (looking straight into the camera) “… Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
The Indiana native also starred as Webster Long’s (Emmanuel Lewis) adoptive father, George Papadopolis, in the ABC sitcom “Webster” (1983–1989) alongside his real-life wife Susan Clark.
Even during his NFL career, Karras had acquired a reputation as an unconventional storyteller who would improvise tales about past lives to amuse his teammates. This reputation attracted the attention of writer George Plimpton, who had heard many stories about the Lions’ notorious defensive leader while training with the team for his book “Paper Lion.”
Plimpton adapted the book into a 1968 film featuring Karras as himself. The film portrays the athlete as he was in real life — entertaining teammates with impromptu stories of past fictional lives, including his marriage to Nazi German chancellor Adolf Hitler.
Following his football career — and because of his role in “Paper Lion” — Karras would make several appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Karras returned to acting with various roles in movies, television shows and commercials. Among other appearances, his most memorable role was in the 1975 made-for-TV movie “Babe,” where he played hulking ex-wrestler George Zaharias, loyally caring for his cancer-stricken wife, the legendary athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
In 1973, ABC brought Karras on as a commentator to replace Fred Williamson for the network’s Monday Night Football broadcasts, where he served three years until leaving after the 1976 season. His most memorable comment came in his first game, when he joked that bald Oakland Raiders’ lineman Otis Sistrunk, who never attended college, was from “the University of Mars.”
In 2017, NFL Films released a short video documentary about his career, ranking him as one of the top 10 players not (at that time) in the league’s Hall of Fame.
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